Debunking the false choice between individual behavior change and systems change

Blog Post Global Intelligence
Published April 28, 2021

Lina Fedirko

Associate Director, Road Transportation

Kate Power

Development Director, Hot or Cool Institute

Systems change and individual behavior change are not conflicting frameworks for how to mitigate climate change, they are two sides of the same coin.

The climate change mitigation community has long prioritized actions aimed at driving systems-level change to end the climate crisis, rather than focusing on changing individual behaviors. This has spurred some debate in recent years between these two models of how to achieve social change, but this is ultimately a false choice that distracts everyone from the real work of climate action and underestimates the power of individual choices that underpin social norms. Systems change and individual behavior change are not conflicting frameworks for how to mitigate climate change, they are two sides of the same coin, as organizations such as Climate Outreach and Rapid Transition Alliance argue.

In any society, individuals drive social norms that make up the collective culture. For instance, cultural revolutions don’t happen because of systems change; they happen when a group of people voice a compelling story that propagates across society and becomes a social norm.

In the context of climate change, those who support individual behavior change fear that if individuals in the Global North can’t adjust their consumption habits to protect the planet, then the 2-3 billion individuals entering the middle class in the Global South can’t be expected to do so either. Moreover, closer understanding of how personal habits contribute to climate change can orient us toward advocacy for aligned policies and practices.

Similarly, systems are made of people who make subjective choices every day, and those choices shape the systems as we know them. For climate change mitigation, systems change strategies entail influencing key organizational stakeholders to take actions that align with an emissions-free future and in turn influence the masses to take similar actions. Those who advocate for systems change fear that if we put too much focus on individual behavior change, we will stop holding corporations and governments accountable for their own impacts.

Both sides are valid, and therefore, it is not a choice between the two. We need to do better as individuals and we need to pressure politicians and companies to adopt policies and practices that speed up the transition to a sustainable economy.

Why this debate matters

We will only be able to confront the climate crisis if each and every one of us living in the Global North acknowledges that our way of life is contributing disproportionately to climate change and that we have the power to change course. In fact, research shows that simply telling people that their behavior is important for climate change mitigation encourages them to take action to reduce their emissions.

This raises an important distinction for thinking about the false choice between individual and systemic change: No matter how much (or little) responsibility individuals have for causing emissions, everybody has agency to create positive change. Taking action at the individual level has influence beyond the household, and that influence can be amplified in many ways:

  1. Effectively communicating about the changes we are making without moralizing,
  2. Constructively encouraging changes in the institutions we are part of, such as workplaces and schools; and
  3. Exploring the limitations of our personal actions as drivers for wider systems change.

It can feel inappropriate to call attention to individual behaviors in the face of a 2018 report showing that one-third of global emissions can be attributed to the 20 largest fossil fuel companies. However, history is full of examples of how principled individual actions were the basis for deeper social change, as evident by the rise of veganism in the U.K. and the rise of alternative meat companies. Moreover, there is a power in social contagion even when we aren’t trying to influence others through our actions. For instance, people are more likely to install solar panels on their homes if others in their neighborhood have done so.

Initiatives driving individual change

Following 2018 IPCC report calling for “wide-scale behavior changes” in addition to systems changes in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, a number of initiatives have set out to drive individual behavior change that supports systems change:

  • Rapid Transition Alliance showcases “evidence-based hope” about how positive change can happen surprisingly quickly, and the factors that make those deep and rapid changes more likely to happen and more enduring, including rapid behavior changes explored in the Lessons from Lockdown
  • Scientists for Global Responsibility have developed a Science Oath for the Climate, where scientists are pledging to speak out on climate science, reduce their own emissions in order to demonstrate the possibilities for change, and hold their professional institutions accountable for both their emissions and affiliations with polluting industries.
  • CIDSE´s Change for the Planet, Care for the People campaign takes a top-down and bottom-up approach to promoting sustainable living through grassroots activism with young Catholics and Catholic development agencies, and collaborative work with the Vatican and Catholic leadership at all levels.

These are just a few examples that highlight the ways in which individual power can add up to collective action and ways philanthropy can support this work.

What more philanthropy can do

Philanthropy can take several steps to be a key voice in shifting the discourse around the debate between individual and systems change:

  • First, philanthropy can firmly acknowledge and debunk the false choice and be clear about the ways in which individual behavior change and systems change complement one another. Philanthropy can use the evidence base on how individuals catalyze systems change, such as “Individual behavior and system change: How are they connected?
  • Second, support intersectional campaigns that amplify the power of individual choices, such as the examples provided in the previous section.
  • Third, walk the walk. Many organizations, including ClimateWorks, are starting to update their air travel policies (systems), which are upheld by staff (individuals), by engaging in an iterative process where individuals shape the system to correspond to the urgency of the climate crisis. Moreover, organizations have the institutional power to promote sustainable behavior across the climate community, for example by encouraging staff to favor remote working or limiting funding for face-to-face meetings.

Lastly, philanthropy can explore and support the power of individual behavior change by investing in programs and initiatives, or taking the actions that we’ve outlined in a previous blog.

(This piece was also published by the Hot or Cool Institute here.)